11 Facts About Johann Sebastian Bach

Illustration by Mental Floss. Image: Rischgitz, Getty Images
Illustration by Mental Floss. Image: Rischgitz, Getty Images

Johann Sebastian Bach is everywhere. Weddings? Bach. Haunted houses? Bach. Church? Bach. Shredding electric guitar solos? Look, it’s Bach! The Baroque composer produced more than 1100 works, from liturgical organ pieces to secular cantatas for orchestra, and his ideas about musical form and harmony continue to influence generations of music-makers. Here are 11 things you might not know about the man behind the music.

1. There's some disagreement about when he was actually born.

Some people celebrate Bach’s birthday on March 21. Other people light the candles on March 31. The correct date depends on whom you ask. Bach was born in Thuringia in 1685, when the German state was still observing the Julian calendar. Today, we use the Gregorian calendar, which shifted the dates by 11 days. And while most biographies opt for the March 31 date, Bach scholar Christopher Wolff firmly roots for Team 21. “True, his life was actually 11 days longer because Protestant Germany adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1700,” he told Classical MPR, “but with the legal stipulation that all dates prior to Dec. 31, 1699, remain valid.”

2. He was at the center of a musical dynasty.

Bach’s great-grandfather was a piper. His grandfather was a court musician. His father was a violinist, organist, court trumpeter, and kettledrum player. At least two of his uncles were composers. He had five brothers—all named Johann—and the three who lived to adulthood became musicians. J.S. Bach also had 20 children, and, of those who lived past childhood, at least five became professional composers. According to the Nekrolog, an obituary written by Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, "[S]tarting with Veit Bach, the founding father of this family, all his descendants, down to the seventh generation, have dedicated themselves to the profession of music, with only a few exceptions."

3. He took a musical pilgrimage that puts every road trip to Woodstock to shame.

In 1705, 20-year-old Bach walked 280 miles—that's right, walked—from the city of Arnstadt to Lübeck in northern Germany to hear a concert by the influential organist and composer Dieterich Buxtehude. He stuck around for four months to study with the musician [PDF]. Bach hoped to succeed Buxtehude as the organist of Lübeck's St. Mary's Church, but marriage to one of Buxtehude's daughters was a prerequisite to taking over the job. Bach declined, and walked back home.

4. He brawled with his students.

One of Bach’s first jobs was as a church organist in Arnstadt. When he signed up for the role, nobody told him he also had to teach a student choir and orchestra, a responsibility Bach hated. Not one to mince words, Bach one day lost patience with a error-prone bassoonist, Johann Geyersbach, and called him a zippelfagottist—that is, a “nanny-goat bassoonist.” Those were fighting words. Days later, Geyersbach attacked Bach with a walking stick. Bach pulled a dagger. The rumble escalated into a full-blown scrum that required the two be pulled apart.

5. He spent 30 days in jail for quitting his job.

When Bach took a job in 1708 as a chamber musician in the court of the Duke of Saxe-Weimar, he once again assumed a slew of responsibilities that he never signed up for. This time, he took it in stride, believing his hard work would lead to his promotion to kapellmeister (music director). But after five years, the top job was handed to the former kapellmeister’s son. Furious, Bach resigned and joined a rival court. As retribution, the duke jailed him for four weeks. Bach spent his time in the slammer writing preludes for organ.

6. The Brandenburg Concertos were a failed job application.

Around 1721, Bach was the head of court music for Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen. Unfortunately, the composer reportedly didn’t get along with the prince’s new wife, and he started looking for a new gig. (Notice a pattern?) Bach polished some manuscripts that had been sitting around and mailed them to a potential employer, Christian Ludwig, the Margrave of Brandenburg. That package, which included the Brandenburg Concertos—now considered some of the most important orchestral compositions of the Baroque era—failed to get Bach the job [PDF].

7. He wrote an amazing coffee jingle.

Bach apparently loved coffee enough to write a song about it: "Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht" ("Be still, stop chattering"). Performed in 1735 at Zimmerman’s coffee house in Leipzig, the song is about a coffee-obsessed woman whose father wants her to stop drinking the caffeinated stuff. She rebels and sings this stanza:

Ah! How sweet coffee tastes
More delicious than a thousand kisses
Milder than muscatel wine.
Coffee, I have to have coffee,
And, if someone wants to pamper me,
Ah, then bring me coffee as a gift!

8. If Bach challenged you to a keyboard duel, you were guaranteed to be embarrassed.

In 1717, Louis Marchand, a harpsichordist from France, was invited to play for Augustus, Elector of Saxony, and performed so well that he was offered a position playing for the court. This annoyed the court’s concertmaster, who found Marchand arrogant and insufferable. To scare the French harpsichordist away, the concertmaster hatched a plan with his friend, J.S. Bach: a keyboard duel. Bach and Marchand would improvise over a number of different styles, and the winner would take home 500 talers. But when Marchand learned just how talented Bach was, he hightailed it out of town.

9. Some of his music may have been composed to help with insomnia.

Some people are ashamed to admit that classical music, especially the Baroque style, makes them sleepy. Be ashamed no more! According to Bach’s earliest biographer, the Goldberg Variations were composed to help Count Hermann Karl von Keyserling overcome insomnia. (This story, to be fair, is disputed.) Whatever the truth, it hasn’t stopped the Andersson Dance troupe from presenting a fantastic Goldberg-based tour of performances called “Ternary Patterns for Insomnia.” Sleep researchers have also suggested studying the tunes’ effects on sleeplessness [PDF].

10. A botched eye surgery blinded him.

When Bach was 65, he had eye surgery. The “couching” procedure, which was performed by a traveling surgeon named John Taylor, involved shoving the cataract deep into the eye with a blunt instrument. Post-op, Taylor gave the composer eye drops that contained pigeon blood, mercury, and pulverized sugar. It didn’t work. Bach went blind and died shortly after. Meanwhile, Taylor moved on to botch more musical surgeries. He would perform the same procedure on the composer George Frideric Handel, who also went blind.

11. Nobody is 100 percent confident that Bach is buried in his grave.

In 1894, the pastor of St. John’s Church in Leipzig wanted to move the composer’s body out of the church graveyard to a more dignified setting. There was one small problem: Bach had been buried in an unmarked grave, as was common for regular folks at the time. According to craniologist Wilhelm His, a dig crew tried its best to find the composer but instead found “heaps of bones, some in many layers lying on top of each other, some mixed in with the remains of coffins, others already smashed by the hacking of the diggers.” The team later claimed to find Bach’s box, but there’s doubt they found the right (de)composer. Today, Bach supposedly resides in Leipzig’s St. Thomas Church.

11 Surprising Facts About Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash in 1966.
Johnny Cash in 1966.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

With his gravelly baritone and colorful lyrics, Johnny Cash became one of the 1960s’ most prolific crossover artists, bridging the gap between country and early rock ‘n’ roll with a moody, bluesy flair. But it wasn’t just his music that captivated audiences everywhere—it was also Cash himself, the especially intense “Man in Black” who struggled with addiction for most of his life and found strength in the arms of his fellow country singer and eventual wife, June Carter Cash. Learn more about Cash’s legendary life and career below.

1. Johnny Cash’s birth name was J.R. Cash.

On February 26, 1932, Ray and Carrie Cash welcomed their fourth of seven children in Kingsland, Arkansas, and simply couldn’t agree on what to name him. Carrie favored “John” or her maiden name, “Rivers,” while Ray wanted to name his new son after himself. As a compromise, they settled on “J.R.,” which technically doesn’t stand for anything. When J.R. enlisted in the Air Force, the recruiter wouldn’t accept initials as a full name, so he changed it to “John R. Cash,” which gave way to the nickname “Johnny.”

2. Johnny Cash's older brother died in a tragic accident.

Cash grew up idolizing his brother, Jack, who was two years his senior. “There was nobody in the world as good and as wise and as strong as my big brother Jack,” Johnny once said. But tragedy struck in May 1944, while Jack was working in his high school’s wood shop. Someone had removed the protective guard from the table saw and switched out its blade for a larger one; when he went to cut a piece of wood, the saw cleaved through his abdomen, and he died from the wound several days later. Johnny, who was just 12 years old at the time, took it upon himself to help dig Jack’s grave.

3. Johnny Cash’s vocal coach advised him to stop taking lessons.

Cash grew up with Gospel songs as his main musical influence and sometimes performed in school talent shows. His mother, who could play the guitar and piano, encouraged her son’s musical predilections, and even scrounged up some money for voice lessons. However, his teacher promptly advised him to quit, worried that any further formal training would alter Cash’s unique way of singing. “Don’t ever take voice lessons again,” she said. “Don’t let me or anyone change how you sing.”

4. Johnny Cash intercepted Soviet radio transmissions during the Korean War.

johnny cash air force
John R. Cash in the Air Force during the early 1950s.
USAMM Studios, YouTube

In 1950, a 19-year-old Cash joined the Air Force and spent three years in Landsberg am Lech, Germany, deciphering messages in Morse code from radio transmissions he intercepted from Soviet Union aircrafts. While there, Cash purchased his first guitar for about $5 and even established his first band—the Landsberg Barbarians, a play on the name of the military base’s newspaper, the Landsberg Bavarian. It was also while in Landsberg that Cash watched the documentary Inside Folsom Prison, which inspired his song “Folsom Prison Blues.”

5. Johnny Cash had four daughters with his first wife, Vivian Liberto.

Cash began a relationship with Vivian Liberto while training at Brooks Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, and the two kept up correspondence throughout Cash’s tour of Germany. They married on August 7, 1954, settled in Memphis, and went on to have four daughters: Rosanne, Kathy, Cindy, and Tara. But as Cash’s music career took off, his marriage deteriorated—due largely to his long absences, suspected infidelity, and destructive dependence on drugs and alcohol—and Vivian requested a divorce in 1966. It was finalized nearly two years later.

6. Johnny Cash met June Carter at the Grand Ole Opry in 1956.

Cash’s debut at the Grand Ole Opry in 1956 was an important moment in his career, but it had an even greater effect on his life as a whole. On that night, country singer Carl Smith introduced Cash to his then-wife and fellow performer, June Carter. Cash was instantly smitten, and Carter returned the feeling, later writing that she was captivated by his “black eyes that shone like agates” and impressed by the way he commanded the stage with a “gentle kind of presence.” The pair soon began touring together, and though it’s not clear exactly when their relationship turned romantic, it almost definitely happened while they were still married to other people—Carter married retired football player Edwin “Rip” Nix a year after divorcing Smith in 1956, and they had a daughter, Rosie, before separating in 1966.

“It was not a convenient time for me to fall in love with him, and it was not a convenient time for him to fall in love with me,” Carter told Rolling Stone in 2000. Cash felt the same way. “We hadn’t said ‘I love you.’ We were afraid to say it, because we knew what was going to happen: That eventually we were going to be divorced, and we were going to go through hell. Which we did.”

Cash proposed to Carter in front of 7000 people during a show at Canada’s London Ice House in February 1968. They married in Kentucky a few weeks later, and their union lasted until June’s death in 2003.

7. Johnny Cash became an ordained minister.

Despite his drug abuse and general status as a role model for outlaws, Cash was a devout Christian for most of his life. He and Carter both took Bible study courses at Christian International Bible College in the 1970s, and Cash became an ordained minister around that time, too. He even recorded a nearly 19-hour audio version of the New Testament of the Bible, and was also close friends with Reverend Billy Graham, who encouraged him throughout his spiritual journey.

8. Johnny Cash was once arrested for picking flowers—or so he said.

Cash may never have shot a man in Reno just to watch him die, but his reputation for lawlessness wasn’t exactly based on nothing. He was arrested a total of seven times (though he only ever spent a few nights in jail) for crimes like drug possession and reckless driving. Late one night in May 1965, after Cash performed a concert at Mississippi State University, police found him wandering the town of Starkville and arrested him for public drunkenness. Cash protested, claiming that he was just picking flowers, but it was no use—the officers took him to the local jail, where he continued to protest in a very loud, painful way.

“I was screaming, cussing, and kicking at the cell door all night long until I finally broke my big toe,” Cash later wrote. He was released the next morning, and the ordeal inspired his song “Starkville City Jail.” In 2007, the city of Starkville held its first annual Johnny Cash Flower Pickin’ Festival to commemorate the incident, and even pardoned Cash during 2008’s event. “Johnny Cash was arrested in seven places,” festival founder Robbie Ward said at the time. “But he only wrote a song about one of those places.”

9. Johnny Cash wrote a novel.

In addition to his two autobiographies—1975’s Man in Black and 1997’s Cash: The Autobiography—the prolific musician also published a 1986 novel called Man in White, which imagines the life and religious transformation of Paul the Apostle. It wasn’t exactly critically acclaimed; Kirkus Reviews wrote that it “barely functions as a novel” and is “strictly for those with the patience of Job, and then some.”

10. Johnny Cash died just months after June Carter Cash.

johnny cash and june carter cash in 1972
Johnny and June Carter Cash in 1972.
Michael Putland, Getty Images

On May 7, 2003, 73-year-old June Carter Cash slipped into a coma after undergoing heart surgery. She died on May 15, shocking everyone—especially her husband of 35 years. “After June died, life was a struggle for him," Kris Kristofferson, Cash's longtime friend and frequent collaborator, said. “His daughter told me he cried every night."

Cash continued to work through the heartbreak and his own deteriorating physical health, and finished recording his album American V: A Hundred Highways late that summer. He was hospitalized soon after, and passed away from diabetes-related respiratory issues on September 12, 2003, at age 71.

11. There’s a tarantula species named after Johnny Cash.

In 2016, arachnologist Chris Hamilton decided that Johnny Cash would be an especially apt namesake for a newly discovered species of tarantula for two reasons. One, the spiders were found around California’s Folsom State Prison, the setting for Cash’s legendary live album in 1968 (featuring his hit song “Folsom Prison Blues,” of course); and two, because the tarantula was covered in black hair, which reminded Hamilton of the dark clothing that the “Man in Black” so often sported. So he christened the tarantula Aphonopelma johnnycashi. “It immediately fit,” Hamilton told Live Science.

10 Wonderful Facts About Eric Clapton

Eric Clapton performing in Rotterdam, Netherlands in 1992.
Eric Clapton performing in Rotterdam, Netherlands in 1992.
Niels van Iperen/Getty Images

Eric Clapton is among the greatest and most influential guitar players in rock history. Rolling Stone ranked the British icon #2 on its list of the all-time best guitarists, right behind Jimi Hendrix. As a solo artist and a member of bands like The Yardbirds, Blind Faith, Cream, and Derek and the Dominos, the man known as “Slowhand” (and sometimes “God”) has thrilled generations of fans with his righteous bluesy wailing.

In honor of the rock icon's 75th birthday (March 30, 2020), here are 10 things you might not know about Eric Clapton.

1. Eric Clapton had a pretty unusual childhood.

For much of his young life, Eric Clapton believed that his maternal grandparents were his parents. His mother, Patricia, was just 16 when she gave birth to the future rock legend on March 30, 1945. His father was a 24-year-old Canadian soldier stationed in England during World War II. Clapton’s father returned to Canada before Eric was born, and Patricia gave the boy to her parents to raise. She returned for a time when Eric was nine, and to avoid scandal, the family told people she was his older sister. Patricia’s return traumatized Eric, turning him from a model student to a shy, artsy loner.

2. Eric Clapton quit playing guitar at age 13 because it was too hard.

Eric Clapton performing on stage in Philadelphia in the summer of 1974.
Eric Clapton performing on stage in Philadelphia in the summer of 1974.
Michael Putland/Getty Images

Young guitar students often begin on cheap instruments that are difficult and frustrating to play. That’s why many aspiring rockers quit before they reach Eric Clapton levels of playing (if they ever can). Yet Clapton himself nearly suffered this same fate: He received his first axe, a German-made Hoyer, when he was 13 years old. The steel-string guitar was nearly as big as Clapton was. "It sounded nice, but it was just such hard work, I gave up,” Clapton said. “So I started when I was 13 and gave up when I was 13 and a half.” Fortunately, he picked it up again.

3. Clapton’s nickname “Slowhand” has nothing to do with his guitar technique.

Eric Clapton’s nickname “Slowhand” is a strange one for a guy who’s made millions playing blazing guitar solos. You can’t shred like Clapton does without some seriously quick digits. As it turns out, the name dates back to his days with The Yardbirds, a band he joined in 1963 and stayed with until 1965. Clapton often broke strings during shows, and while he changed them, the audience would slow clap. This inspired The Yardbirds's manager Giorgio Gomelsky to come up with the name “Slowhand.” According to Clapton, it was meant to be ironic.

4. Clapton left The Yardbirds right after they released their first hit.

In April 1965, The Yardbirds tune "For Your Love" peaked at #3 on the UK charts. But Clapton wasn’t around to enjoy the success. In those days, Clapton was a blues purist who clashed with Yardbirds bassist Paul Samwell-Smith and manager Giorgio Gomelsky over the group’s increasingly poppy direction. Clapton didn’t like the mostly guitar-free sound of “For Your Love,” and it’s among the reasons he left the group soon after its March 1965 release. Clapton suggested session pro Jimmy Page as his replacement, but the future Led Zeppelin guitar god declined. The gig wound up going to Jeff Beck.

5. Eric Clapton was worshipped as a god (maybe).

In the mid-’60s, the graffiti slogan “Clapton is God” began popping up on walls around London. The phrase became part of the Clapton mythology, affirming his superhuman guitar prowess. While Clapton claimed he never actually saw the messages, he admitted in his 2007 memoir that he was “grateful” for their existence, as they gave him “the kind of status nobody could tamper with.” In 2016, Clapton suggested it wasn’t an anonymous fan behind the vandalism, but rather Hamish Grimes, a man employed by The Yardbirds’ manager to hype up audiences.

6. Clapton once got to play a Beatle for a day.

During sessions for The Beatles, a.k.a. “The White Album,” in 1968, George Harrison didn’t feel like his bandmates were paying enough attention to his song “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” So on the way to the studio one day, he invited his friend Eric Clapton to come play the guitar solo. Clapton was reluctant—no outsider had ever really guested on a Beatles record—but it all worked out for the best. “I said, ‘Eric’s going to play on this one,’ and it was good because that then made everyone act better,” Harrison said. “Paul got on the piano and played a nice intro and they all took it more seriously.”

7. “Layla” was partly inspired by Clapton’s love for George Harrison's wife.

Ringo Starr, Maureen Cox, George Harrison, Pattie Boyd and Eric Clapton arrive at Heathrow Airport in 1968.
Ringo Starr, Maureen Cox, George Harrison, Pattie Boyd and Eric Clapton arrive at Heathrow Airport in 1968.
Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

One of Clapton’s signature songs is “Layla,” released in 1970 by the group Derek and the Dominos. Clapton was inspired by two things: the 12th century Persian story The Story of Layla and Majnun, and Pattie Boyd, then-wife of Beatles guitarist (and Eric’s good buddy) George Harrison. “I was amazed and thrilled at the song—it was so passionate and devastatingly dramatic—but I wanted to hang on to my marriage,” Boyd told The Guardian in 2008.

Boyd divorced Harrison in 1977, and two years later, she and Clapton were married. Amazingly, Harrison wasn’t mad—he performed at the wedding with Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr.

8. Clapton’s biggest U.S. hit was inspired by personal tragedy.

In March 1991, Clapton suffered an unspeakable tragedy. His four-year-old son, Conor, fell to his death from the window of a New York City high-rise. After a period of seclusion, Clapton worked with lyricist Will Jennings—who’d later co-author Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On”—to write “Tears In Heaven.” Originally appearing on the soundtrack for the 1991 film Rush, “Tears In Heaven” reached #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and became Clapton’s best-selling U.S. single. The song also earned him Grammy Awards for Best Pop Vocal Performance, Record of the Year, and Song of the Year.

9. Eric Clapton is not Sheryl Crow's "favorite mistake."

Eric Clapton and Sheryl Crow perform together during the 2007 Crossroads Guitar Festival in Bridgeview, Illinois.
Eric Clapton and Sheryl Crow perform together during the 2007 Crossroads Guitar Festival in Bridgeview, Illinois.
Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images for Gibson

Much like Carly Simon's "You're So Vain," rumors have swirled for years that Sheryl Crow's 1998 hit "My Favorite Mistake" was written in response to her breakup with Clapton. (The two dated for a couple of years during the late 1990s.) But Crow, who had previously dated Owen Wilson and was once famously engaged to Lance Armstrong, has put those rumors to rest, stating that, "'My Favorite Mistake' is about several people in my life who weren’t very good ideas—but not Eric. I’ve known Eric for over 10 years, and I can’t look at that relationship as a mistake."

10. Clapton is a three-time Rock and Roll Hall of Famer.

Eric Clapton was first inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992, when The Yardbirds received the honor. The following year, he got in as a member of Cream. Clapton’s 2000 induction as a solo performer made him the first (and to date only) artist to be inducted three times.

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